Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Preface and Introduction to the Conchologist's First Book,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. XIV: Essays and Miscellanies (1902), pp. 95-100


[page 95:]



THE term “Malacology,” an abbreviation of “Malacoxoology” [sic] from the Greek μαλακος, soft, ξωον, an animal, and λογος, a discourse, was first employed by the French naturalist, De Blainville, to designate an important division of Natural History, in which the leading feature of the animals discussed was the softness of the flesh, or, to speak with greater accuracy, of the general envelop. This division comprehends not only the mollusca, but also the testacea of Aristotle and of Pliny, and, of course, had reference to molluscous animals in general — of which the greater portion have shells.

A treatise concerning the shells, exclusively, of this greater portion, is termed, in accordance with general usage, a Treatise upon Conchology or Conchyliology; although the word is somewhat improperly applied, as the Greek conchylion, from which it is derived, embraces in its signification both the animal and shell. Ostracology would have been more definite.

The common works upon this subject, however, will appear to every person of science very essentially defective, inasmuch as the relations of the animal and shell, with their dependence upon each other, is a radically important consideration in the examination of either. Neither, in the attempt to obviate this difficulty, is a work upon Malacology at large necessarily [page 96:] included. Shells, it is true, form, and for many obvious reasons, will continue to form, the subject of chief interest whether with regard to the school or the cabinet. There is no good reason why a book upon Conchology (using the common term) may not be malacological as far as it proceeds.

In this view of the subject the present little work is offered to the public. Beyond the ruling feature — that of giving an anatomical account of each animal, together with a description of the shell which it inhabits, the Author has aimed at little more than accuracy and simplicity, as far as the latter quality can be thought consistent with the rigid exactions of science.

No attention has been given to the mere History of our subject; it is conceived that any disquisition on this head would more properly appertain to works of ultimate research, than to one whose sole intention is to make the pupil acquainted, in as tangible a form as possible, with results. To afford, at a cheap rate, a concise, yet sufficiently comprehensive, and especially a well illustrated school-book, has been the principal design.

In conclusion, the author has only to acknowledge his great indebtedness to the valuable public labors, as well as private assistance, of Mr. Isaac Lea, of Philadelphia. To Mr. Thomas Wyatt, and his late excellent Manual of Conchology, he is also under many obligations. No better work, perhaps, could be put into the hands of the student as a secondary text-book. Its beautiful and perfectly well-coloured illustrations afford an aid in the collection of a cabinet scarcely to be met with elsewhere.

E. A. P.

[page 97:]


THE term “Conchology,” in its legitimate usage, is applied to that department of Natural History which has reference to animals with testaceous coverings or shells. It is not unfrequently compounded [sic] with Crustaceology, but the distinction is obvious and radical, lying not more in the composition of the animal’s habitation than in the organization of the animal itself. This latter, in the Crustacea, is of a fibrous nature, and has articulated limbs; the shell, strictly adapted to the members, covers the creature like a coat of mail, is produced at one elaboration, is cast or thrown aside periodically, and, again at one elaboration, renewed; it is moreover composed of the animal matter with phosphate of lime. In the Testacea, on the contrary, the inhabitant is of a simple and soft texture, without bones, and is attached to its domicil [sic] by a certain adhesive muscular force; this domicil, too, is a permanent one, and is increased, from time to time, by gradual adhesions on the part of the tenant; while the entire shell, which is distributed in layers, or strata, is a combination of carbonate of lime, with a very small portion of gelatinous matter. Such animals, then, with such shells, form, alone, the subject of a proper “Conchology.”

Writers have not been wanting to decry this study as frivolous or inessential; not unjustly assailing the science itself on account of the gross abuses which have now and then arisen from its exclusive and extravagant pursuit. They have reasoned much after this fashion: — that Conchology is a folly, because Rumphius was a fool. The Conas Ceda Nulli has been sold for three hundred guineas, and the naturalist first mentioned gave [page 98:] a thousand pounds sterling for one of the first discovered specimens of the Venus Dione (of Linnæus). But there have been men in all ages who have carried to an absurd, and even pernicious, extreme pursuits the most ennobling and praiseworthy.

To an upright and well regulated mind, there is no portion of the works of the Creator, coming within its cognizance, which will not afford material for attentive and pleasurable investigation; and, so far from admitting the venerable error even now partially existing to the discredit of Conchology, we should not hesitate to acknowledge, that while few branches of Natural History are of more direct, very few are of more adventitious importance.

Testaceous animals form the principal subsistence of an immense number of savage nations, inhabitants of the sea-board. On the coast of Western Africa, of Chill, of New Holland, and in the clustered and populous islands of the Southern seas, how vast an item is the apparently unimportant shell-fish in the wealth and happiness of man! In more civilized countries it often supplies the table with a delicate luxury. Nor must we forget the services of the pinna with its web, nor of the purpura with its brilliant and once valuable dye, nor omit to speak of the pearl-oyster, with the radiant nacre, and the gem which it produces, and the world of industry which it sets in action as minister to the luxury which it stimulates.

Shells, too, being composed of particles already in natural combination, have not within them, like flowers and animals, the seed of dissolution. While the preparation of a specimen for the cabinet is a simple operation, a conchological collection will yet remain perhaps for ages. These important circumstances being duly [page 99:] considered, in connexion with the universally acknowledged beauty and variety, both of form and colour, so strikingly observable in shells, it is a matter for neither wonder nor regret that these magnificent exuviæ, even regarded merely as such, should have attracted, in a very exclusive degree, the attention and the admiration of the naturalist. The study of Conchology, however, when legitimately directed, and when regarding these exuviæ in their natural point of view, as the habitations, wonderfully constructed, of an immensely numerous and vastly important branch of the animal creation, will lead the mind of the investigator through paths hitherto but imperfectly trodden, to many novel contemplations of Almighty Beneficence and Design.

But it is, beyond all doubt, in a geological point of view that Conchology offers the most of interest to the student; and here, by reference to the fair pages of a profound and mighty knowledge, to which it has pointed out the searcher after truth, are triumphantly refuted all charges brought against it of insignificance or frivolity.

“In fine, the relations of the mollusca,” says De Blainville, “with the mineral kingdom, and consequently with the mass of the earth which they contribute to form, are not devoid of interest, for without seeking here to resolve the physiological question — whether the conchyliferous mollusca borrow of the inorganic kingdom the calcareous matter which composes their shells, or whether they form it of themselves, it is still certain that they produce, at least, changes upon the surface of the earth by accumulating this material in some places more than in others, and in consequence that they alter the physiognomy of the superficial structure of the globe, the study of which constitutes geognosy.” [page 100:]

“By this,” says Parkinson, “we are taught that innumerable beings have lived, of which not one of the same kind does any longer exist — that immense beds composed of the spoils of these animals, extending for many miles underground, are met with in many parts of the globe — that enormous chains of mountains, which seem to load the surface of the earth, are vast monuments, in which these remains of former ages are entombed — that, though lying thus crushed together, in a rude and confused mass, they are hourly suffering these changes, by which, after thousands of years, they become the chief constituent parts of gems, the limestone which forms the humble cottage of the peasant, or the marble which adorns the splendid palace of the prince.” Fossil, wood, coral, and shells, are, indeed, as Bergman has very forcibly remarked, the only true remaining “medals of Creation.”

NOTE. — For a history of “The Conchologist’s First Book,” see Vol. I. (Biography). — ED.





[S:1 - JAHCW, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Preface and Introduction to the Conchologist's First Book)